Shoplifters is a family melodrama given life by the genuine souls of its characters
This review is part of Reel Nine’s coverage of the 41st Denver Film Festival. You can find reviews of other films at the festival here.
Looking over the extensive list of films released this year, it would appear the concept of family is heavy on the minds of many a filmmaker, and its a concept that doesn’t seem to be inspiring warm, fuzzy feelings. From Hereditary turning parental dysfunction into a nightmare to Wildlife exploring the crumbling facade of an idyllic nuclear family, many films are coming together to create a thesis statement that declares the worst curse of all might be our own lineage. Shoplifters, Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda’s (Like Father, Like Son) latest film and this year’s Palme d’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival, is a much more tender take on the idea of family, one that agrees our prescribed ancestry might impose great pain on our lives but acknowledges the beauty in the choice of who we decide to call our real family.
Set in an impoverished area of Tokyo, the film focuses on the lives of the Shibota family, a cheery but struggling collection of outsiders who rely on odd jobs, grandmother Hatsue’s (Kirin Kiki, Still Walking) pension, and shoplifting to survive. The patriarch Osamu (Lily Franky, Like Father, Like Son) furthers complicates matters when he and his son Shota (Kairi Jō) discover a young homeless girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), and he decides to take her in. Though his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando, 100 Yen Love) and her sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka, Tremble All You Want) initially object, citing the fact they already have enough mouths to feed, Nobuyo relents when they realize Yuri is being abused by her neglectful parents.
Once Yuri is informally adopted by this den of thieves, their individual lives begin to shift into focus. While they all differ deeply in personality, their bond comes from each longing for connection: Osamu and Shoto, a devious and tight pair when stealing together, find they don’t understand one another in any other context. Shoto can’t give Osamu the acceptance he so deeply craves, and Osamu doesn’t feel mature enough to teach his son anything of value. Nobuyu finds the relationship Osamu desires in her own budding stewardship over Yuri, trying her damnedest to force Yuri to unlearn years of abuse and accept the family’s love of her is unconditional, not a tactic to make her vulnerable. Aki spends her nights earning money masturbating for men behind two-way mirrors, but she seems less interested in the pay than she is in using the job as a way to explore and contextualize her own loneliness. Even Hatsue, the clan’s mischievous grandmother, seems to be searching for something in the growing bonds of her band of outsiders.
All of this is made believable not only by the top-to-bottom superb performances of the film’s ensemble, by also by the little touches Kore-eda gives each character to make them feel more human. The film is littered with small details that leave a lasting impression, from Osamu and Shoto’s adorable little fist-bumps before crime sprees to the gestures and movements passed down through the family like heirlooms, like Yuri picking up Shota’s pre-shoplifting finger dance. Through these stunning particulars, Kore-eda makes this feel like a world that’s truly lived in, shaped and molded by the raw emotions and choices of its inhabitants. Never does the film even feel acted, more like it was experienced, as if we’re watching either real people on screen or the actors themselves becoming their characters, living in them as intimately as the family cramming closely together in their desolate apartment.
Kore-eda is a director known for his unabashed sentimentality, and there’s no lack of it here. But his deft hand never lets it grow inauthentic: the love of this group comes from a genuine place of caring for another one, despite their flaws. They often make mistakes, some coming together to reveal a cataclysmic twist ending, but the shock of the finale is tempered by Kore-eda’s razor sharp focus on the tender souls of his characters. He lays the groundwork for the ending with little, intimate mysteries throughout the film, shrouded by the joy we feel in watching the family interact. We only briefly get to question the family’s choices, from not allowing Shota to go to school to Hatsue cribbing cash from the children of her dead husband, before we’re swept up in their candor once again. It’s a brilliant, easygoing setup that makes the impact of the melodrama of the film’s ending cut quickly and deeply.
Few films are as unafraid to be human as Shoplifters. It’s the sort of work that knows to be genuine is to be messy, that to flesh out out all the strengths and flaws of its characters is as an act of immense respect. What it aims to do is to remind us of the humanity of those in our society who are suffering, and how quickly we are to judge them. By the time the credits we roll, we’ve seen the very depths of love before our eyes, makeshift torn apart by circumstances outside this family’s control. It’s a questioning, heartfelt film about the power of choosing our own bonds, and how the truth in those connections can only truly be known by those tangled in their threads.